(Today's Reader Review is brought to you by Don Martin, who was nice enough to provide his take on Mr. Lif's first full-length project, I Phantom. Leave some comments for him below.)
I remember first hearing Boston-based Mr. Lif on two guest appearances (“Speech Cobras”, from the Jedi Mind Tricks album Violent by Design, and the much better “Operating Correctly”, off of 7L & Esoteric's The Soul Purpose) and thinking to myself, "Now that's an interesting flow." He offers a commanding voice (read: sometimes monotone) with some very impressive alliteration and overall style. After discovering his Sleepyheads compilation (made up of previously released material), followed by his EPs Enters the Colossus and Emergency Rations, I couldn't help but admire his socially conscious and political subject matter, since his voice just seemed to fit.
After discovering he was a Def Jukie (a loving moniker given to the artists who were signed to EL-P's underground Definitive Jux label), I got a tingle: the same Definitive Jux that spawned Cannibal Ox's only album, The Cold Vein, the greatest underground record ever recorded? Sign me up! At first, trying to imagine what Lif's flow would be like over El-Producto's mile-a-minute percussion didn't seem promising: not to take anything from Insight or DJ Fakts One (Lif's close friends and previous producers), but Lif seemed more suited on a slower beat with touches of funk thrown in. Emergency Rations, Lif's second EP, was very politically driven, save for the last track, “Phantom” (produced by, you guessed it, El-P.) I must have listened to that track for two days straight on repeat. A fucking gorgeous and absolutely epic backdrop from El-P built the house for Lif's natural narrative voice to lay down a dark, stunning track that left you with questions.
On September 17, 2002, we received the answers. I Phantom, Lif's third release on Definitive Jux (and his first full-length) is not your typical record. Hell, it's not even your typical underground or Def Jux record for that matter. What it ended up being was a twisted painting of humanity, a concept album that would redefine storytelling in hip hop. I honestly don't want to ruin the story of the album (although I'm sure I will in the track breakdown), but rest assured: from top to bottom, front to back, there is no track that is not part of the overall story or concept. Fair warning, this masterpiece can not be cherry picked: you can't really choose a single track from I Phantom to bump in your ride on a Tuesday afternoon. As a concept and story driven record, it demands to be heard from start to finish.
Check out the way the story goes.
1. BAD CARD (FEAT. VAST AIRE)
Every track on I Phantom holds weight, including this two-minute long eerie intro. We're treated to some scary synths tuned with the sounds of our host snoring. Eventually, we begin to hear a conversation between Lif and Cannibal Ox's big man, Vast Aire. Long story short, Lif requests Vast's gun, and after some light arguing, he gives in. Is this a useless intro? Not really: I give Lif a pass, as this is the start of a great story to come, and what happens next doesn't disappoint. (Bonus points if you heard the phantom from Emergency Rations in the background.)
2. A GLIMPSE AT THE STRUGGLE
The first of El-P's eight instrumentals on I Phantom immediately kicks off with a nasty percussion drop and a surprisingly funky undertone. Not exactly the sci-fi odyssey that was The Cold Vein, but then again, this is only the second song on the album, people. Mr. Lif starts it off with a "How the hell did it get to this..." under his breath, and then proceeds to lay down the grid for a robbery track. Lif's flow and El-P's production go together like peanut butter and motherfucking jelly. This one-verse narrative finds Lif eventually getting killed at the end of the verse (SPOILER ALERT!), and the rest of the song rides out on this smooth-ass beat, accompanied by commentary from bystanders who witnessed the failed heist and a Vordul Mega vocal sample from Cannibal Ox's “Iron Galaxy”.
3. RETURN OF THE B-BOY (FEAT. J HAYNES)
Pretty much a fucking certified underground classic. Working with a whopping seven minutes and thirty-six seconds, El-P yet again kicks off with a beat made of gasoline, and Lif acts as the match. Lif continues the narrative of I Phantom, starting his verse in the "seconds after I had been swept off my feet / open flew the door and in steps the beat / complete with medical packs”. Our host, who failed in his robbery attempt on the previous track, has now been resurrected by hip hop. With a simple yet effective chorus (sampling some Guru vocals), you can't help but nod your head and listen to the master tell his tale. Right around the halfway mark, “Return of the B-Boy” pulls a complete 180, and for the rest of the runtime Lif lays down some beautiful hip hop history and battles a version of himself on top of some heavy boom bap. Yeah, you read that right. The last half of this track is probably the best verse of the entire album.
4. LIVE FROM THE PLANTATION
So the last three tracks were a dream, huh? Got it. Mr. Lif wakes up to another mundane workday over an Edan beat, one which will have you believing that he had been working with our host for decades before I Phantom ever came into fruition. This is the anthem for everyone who works a nine-to-five: Lif's attention to detail and humorous second verse reel you in and will have you agreeing, "Yeah, fuck my boss too!" Lif's history of political and social commentary shine brightest on here, and if you can't relate to the lyrics on this gem, well, then, you should get a job.
5. NEW MAN THEME
We're once again treated to a very funkadelic beat, this time provided by Lif's deejay, Fakts One. Lif continues his story on this track, with his visions of grandeur assuring that the situation he finds himself in won't hold him back from his dreams. The track is truly sad in my opinion, as you find out in the second verse Lif has lost his job described on “Live from the Plantation”. Of all the tracks on the album, this production probably impressed me the least (although our host still sounds great: to be completely honest, I'm not sure if there is a beat that Lif couldn't rock the shit out of). Not too say that it's bad, but up against the absolute monsters El-P and Insight have in store on I Phantom that we haven't gotten to yet, I just don't think Fakts One can keep up.
This is just a skit, one which features Mr. Lif begging Insight for a beat after losing his day job. Without the funds to pay for one, however, Lif is left with the words, "You get what you pay for”. Probably could have been tacked onto the end of “New Man Theme”. Next!
7. STATUS (FEAT. INSIGHT)
I love this fucking track. Refusing to be brought down by his misfortune on the previous two songs, Lif's character is ready for the club: "I've got the hottest dance steps / Running Man, Cabbage Patch / Plus the Robocop, then I'll bring back the Wop.” This is a classic take on someone ignoring their current situation and trying to maintain a certain "Status". (Have you noticed the dark undertones of I Phantom shining through even the funny parts of the story yet?) The beat is surprisingly simple on the percussion side, but the funky jazz synth won't allow my head to stay still. Insight, a longtime collaborator of Mr. Lif's, spits a low key verse that isn't anything great, but he serves his function well, adding to the importance of status in today's world and making sure that Lif's character knows he can't even get into the fucking club. Again, a conversation at the end of the track lends humor to the situation, but still adds to the overall depressing theme.
8. SUCCESS (FEAT. AESOP ROCK)
Welcome back, El-P. Just wait for the piano melody to kick in; it's hiding in the back somewhere. This is a fucking reversal from the previous track, one which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of I Phantom and the downward spiral of Lif's character. Our host paints a vivid picture of a typical man's idea of "Success”, one which is truly heartbreaking as he breaks down the family structure in America. Labelmate Aesop Rock provides the hook: "Daddy wore a nametag that said busy working / Mommy had a milk carton that said missing person / Johnny had a new baseball glove but nobody to learn with / That's oil and water trying to mix on the same surface." It's creepy the way El-P perfectly accentuates Lif's storytelling on here.
9. DADDY DEAREST
Another skit. But you know what? I give Mr. Lif a pass for all of the skits on I Phantom, the reason being that they further the story along without taking anything away from it. This shit is fucking sad and will definitely hook you for the rest of this album, if you weren't already.
10. THE NOW
So Lif lost his job and couldn't afford a fucking sandwich, let alone a beat to rhyme over. Luckily for him, things have changed, and he was able to work his way into mundane Corporate America, building a family that he never got a chance to see, one which eventually left him. Producer El-P won't let him stay in the dumps for too long, though, as this beat, in my opinion, tells the ongoing story just as much as our host's own words. It's all about “The Now”, meaning a new family and a new life. That's a good thing, right? At this point, you should feel uneasy with what Lif is actually saying. I know I haven't mentioned this hardly at all, but Mr. Lif's flow (although unchanging) is flawless. I can see why El-P went with this sort of instrumental, as it does fit the concept perfectly, but I would have to say this is probably his weakest effort, production-wise, on I Phantom. Oh yeah, if you didn't catch it, Lif's daughter from his second marriage kills herself at the end of this track. (All rainbows and puppies, this one.)
11. FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
I like this Fakts One beat, and Lif speeds up his flow a bit to match it. We kind of have a bird's eye view of the story as it is taking place, as our host attempts to recap before we are hit with the ending...and it is fucking crazy. This wasn't a standout to me, unlike “Success” or “Return Of The B-Boy”, but it ties the story together, so it serves its purpose. (Side note: for this track and the following two, we are treated to a third person point of view.)
12. IRON HELIX (FEAT. INSIGHT)
Insight treats us to a fucking banger here. Mr. Lif and Insight trade rhymes, with Lif trying to persuade his guest that he requires weapons and needs to wipe out humanity in order to better the species. I can't help but think of Lif and Insight as two gods overlooking Planet Earth, trying to decide its fate. This is just fire, really picking up the pace and epic-ness of what is already a masterpiece.
The pinnacle. Everything's fucked and chaotic. We're no longer focused on the struggle of Lif's character: we are now witnessing the end of humanity, the end to all of the bullshit. Our host's words (over a insane Insight beat) paint a horrific picture of the End of Days. Lif describes specific targets of nuclear attacks, and how the "Earthcrusher" will wipe the slate clean. I really dug Insight's vocal contribution, acting as a newscaster in between the verses, reporting on the chaos taking place. My mind was pretty much blown at this point. What the fuck could Mr. Lif have left in him after this?
14. POST-MORTEM (FEAT. EL-P, JEAN GRAE, & AKROBATIK)
Lif leads off this collaborative effort, with each artist giving their take on the last seconds on Earth before everything ended at the hands of the Earthcrusher. Jean Grae spits hard, but I feel that Lif really puts it down (as well he should) to close out his story. El-P finishes off the album perfectly, production-wise, with a composition that is both spooky and epic, one which truly delivers a feeling of finality, a fitting end to this monster of a record.
FINAL THOUGHTS: It's probably easy to tell by my review, but I'm a Def Jux stan. Knowing that, I tried to find the flaws on Mr. Lif's I Phantom, I truly did. It should automatically lose some points for having the balls to be a concept album, as the probability of failure for a hip hop concept record is pretty fucking high. Mr. Lif isn't the greatest emcee, nor is he the preeminent storyteller in rap, but I haven't yet come across anyone on the mic who can weave their story through multiple tracks like he just did. El-P's production lines up perfectly with the overall theme, fitting each situation and Mr. Lif's vocals like a bloody glove. Fakts One and Insight also bring the fire, but neither can really compare to the way El Producto laces Lif and brings out the emotional impact of the tale. Sure, the story may not be the most original, but fuck me if it's not told in a haunting and paranoid way, one that that really grabs you, the listener, and brings you along on a tale of social wrongdoing, the broken family unit, and the fear of loss. I can't say that I Phantom is my favorite album of all time: as a concept album, it's automatically kept separate from most other rap records (and besides, that particular title is held by Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein anyway). But it is most definitely my number two. I have yet too hear another album even attempt what I Phantom did, and succeed at that. Truly a masterpiece.
BUY OR BURN?: If you haven't bought this by now, I hope the Earthcrusher pays you a visit.
BEST TRACKS: “Return of the B-Boy”; “Success”; “Iron Helix”; “Earthcrusher”
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)